December 25, 2001

Trying to Keep Young Internet Users From a Life of Piracy


When law enforcement agents seized 129 computers in 27 cities recently in a coordinated assault on online piracy, they focused much of their effort on colleges like Duke, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Los Angeles.

They were probably too late.

As children have access to computers earlier and earlier in their educational careers, experts in piracy, hacking and other forms of Internet mischief say that any effort to tackle the illicit trade in digital goods including video games, computer software, music and even movies should be looking at a younger crowd.

"By the time we get them, they already believe it's right," said David J. Farber, a professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania and the former chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission "If you're willing to bootleg music, you're willing to bootleg anything."

In fact, America's rush to the online world has created an enormous population of ever-younger computer pirates, say experts in the field. They compare the situation with giving every student a car without providing drivers' education classes.

"We've got to focus on preparing kids to use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner," said Nancy E. Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon. She has prepared course materials and guides for teaching computer ethics in secondary schools to help them meet the requirements of the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000. The law, which requires schools and libraries to use filters or similar technology to protect children from objectionable materials, also requires an "Internet safety policy" to prevent "unauthorized access, including so-called `hacking,' and other unlawful activities by minors online."

Online, the searching and trading for wares goes on day and night. In an online discussion last week using technology known as Internet Relay Chat, the "warez" channel, or chat room, was busy. Warez is slang for software that has been "liberated" from encryption. On the channel, rapid-fire bursts of messages requesting digital goods games, DVD's, business software were interspersed among the random comments and insults:

Queball: "Anyone know where I can a copy Sybex virtual lab . . ."

Porrin: "@find 3d studio para *pc*."

Nellie: "Anyone here have save the last dance movie. msg me."

The patter and trading are constant, yet this is small time. Far bigger players operate quietly with vast storage and bandwidth, cracking the copyright protection that keep the strings of ones and zeroes that underlie everything from the video game Tomb Raider to the movie "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and making them available in a limitless five-finger discount store in the ether.

The recent raids focused mainly on the networks of hard-core traders in a handful of groups with names like DrinkOrDie, which tended to trade for fun and not for profit. Among the computers seized were ones belonging to business executives and administrators of computer networks.

Unauthorized copying and distribution of software is a global headache for the industry, which claims that more than a third of all business software used is pirated, according to an annual report commissioned by the Business Software Alliance, a trade group. In fact, the situation has improved markedly since 1995, when the figure was closer to half of all software. In the United States the figure has dropped to 24 percent, the lowest rate in the world, because of a vigorous education and enforcement efforts and until recently a strong economy.

Over all, the cost of business software piracy alone was $11.75 billion in 2000, the group reported, although this amount assumes that any illicitly used software would otherwise have been bought by users.

The greatest incidence of software piracy, according to industry experts, occurs in business, where many employees of a firm will share a single copy of a program. Internet trading pales by comparison, said Bob Kruger, vice president for enforcement at the Business Software Alliance. But it constitutes "the biggest threat in the future," he said, "as people become more accustomed to getting digital works online."

The software industry does not break out the statistics for piracy in higher education, but "anecdotally, we see a lot of activity coming out of university areas," said Ric Hirsch, senior vice president for intellectual property enforcement at the Interactive Digital Software Association, the trade association representing computer and video game publishers.

Eugene H. Spafford, a professor of computer science and director of Purdue University's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, said if students lack the ethical preparation when they begin using the Internet, things quickly spiral out of control when they reach college, where they have lots of free time, peers they want to impress and high bandwidth.

That is to be expected, Professor Spafford said, since college is a time for testing boundaries. "We do encourage them to try new things, meet new people," he said. "It's not that surprising that they try to break some of the bounds, and not just in computing."

But fixing the problem would be expensive and intrusive, he said. He questions whether the monitoring required might be worse than the disease.

"When you have one person who goes bad out of 40,000, do you want to watch that other 39,999 to catch that one?" Professor Spafford asked. "To find the people doing the bad things might involve violating the privacy of all those other people. As a society is that the kind of trade-off we want to make?"

Professor Farber agreed. Closely monitor students, he warned, and "pretty soon you'll be looking at what they write and what they read."

Some experts say they wish the corporations pushing for ethical behavior among customers would show more of it themselves.

Many students bristle at the newest legal tool for protecting copyright, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It has been criticized as heavy handed, tipping the balance of copyright law away from principles such as fair use.

Many also note, Professor Willard said, a federal court ruling that Microsoft (news/quote) had abused its monopoly power.

That is how "Incursion" sees it. The Internet name belonged to a college student from Texas, who was looking for games recently on the Warez channel. The student said he generally pays for the software he uses but does like to sample the goods before buying. "If I feel it's a quality game," he said, "I'll buy it."

Asked whether using software without paying for it is wrong, he replied, "depends what you consider wrong." Pressed for further explanation, he wrote, "A monopoly is wrong."

Taking apart rationalizations like that one are part of what Professor Willard tries to do in materials that she has prepared for teenagers.

But she added that the argument has power and that recklessness and rebellion are not just part of adolescence but of the American character. "We applaud the U.S. patriots," she said, "who hacked onto the British tea ship and destroyed their product."

Ultimately, time might be on the companies' side. The environment changes so quickly that even would- be pirates say they find it hard to keep up.

Jeremy, who goes by the online name "Xelsed" and asks that only his first name be used, insisted that he did not trade software any more which did not explain what he was doing in the Warez channel typing "!gimme stuff," a request he saw others type and which he figured could lead to offers. Even if he wanted to, though, he was out of touch, he said, having not visited the site in several months.

The old formula for a request for software typing "/xdcc" and then the name of a program did not seem to resonate in the current slang. "Now I really dont know what to do," he types in the hasty, error- riddled style of instant messages. "I have to face the fact that well i'm dated."

Jeremy said he was 27 and out of college and added that he feels he has outgrown the warez world.

"To be frank," he wrote, "I think its probably alot easer to buy the game then to spend the hours neccacery to make `friends' and get into the sceen."

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